The Moment That Breaks a Man | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Moment That Breaks a Man 

The decline of a family-owned gas station sets the stage for Brett Neveu's devastating new play.

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In 2004 Brett Neveu gave us American Dead, his drama about Lewie—a pleasant but shattered former house painter who's taken to drinking too much and talking with ghosts since his sister's murder. Produced by the American Theater Company, American Dead was all about aftermaths. Neveu's latest work is a kind of spiritual prequel to that spare, strong piece. Premiering at the Goodman in a heartbreaking production directed by Dexter Bullard, Gas for Less lets us see the events that create a Lewie, the moments that make a normal life untenable for certain fragile people.

The Lewie of Gas for Less is 25-year-old Anthony Pelenkovic. Stolid Anthony's no world-beater, but then he's not interested in beating the world. He's exactly where he wants to be, working for his bluff Croatian-immigrant grandpa, Art, at the play's eponymous gas station—an independent business situated somewhere around Lincoln and Montrose (and modeled on a real place that closed in 2005 and is about to be demolished). Anthony spends his autumn Sundays at the station, nominally manning the counter while he watches the 2005 Bears on TV. Aside from a Bears Super Bowl trip, the only thing that could complete his happiness—or, more accurately, his contentment—would be getting Art to loosen up and give him more of a hand in running things.

Even by its own modest standards, though, the Pelenkovic domain isn't what it used to be. The gas station was once a social center. Art loves to go down the list of guys who crowded in among the snack displays to see Mike Ditka's Bears beat the Patriots in the 1985 Super Bowl, on a TV bought especially for the occasion. Five-year-old Anthony got a baptism of sorts that day, when a guest poured beer on his head. But just about everybody's moved on or died since; the only regular left is Pat (played with smooth craft by Ernest Perry Jr.), an old neighborhood guy who's established himself as the in-house contrarian. Pat, Art, and Anthony still watch games on the TV Art bought in '85.

Of course it's not just the passing of people that's the problem. In American Dead, Lewie's private despair is magnified by the slow economic decline of his small rust-belt town. In Gas for Less, it's gentrification that's transforming life as we know it. Either way, it amounts to the same thing: the old ways are played out.

Neveu lets slip the occasional whisper of hope for revival. The Bears season serves as a metaphor for that hope: the 2005 team came back from a miserable 1-3 start (and safety Mike Brown's famous evaluation, "We suck") to end up 11-5. But all bets are off when something entirely arbitrary and devastating happens. No feel-good come-from-behind story here, no return to Eden: like American Dead, Gas for Less bypasses all other considerations to concentrate on a single psyche, shaken unalterably loose from the world that kept it safe.

And that's the source of its power. Though the play's got its problems, they're mostly redeemed by Neveu's unconventional choice of Anthony as his protagonist. The obvious candidate would be Art, who is, after all, the owner of the gas station and the one who stands to lose his life's work as the community changes and franchise outlets take over. Art could easily have been pegged as the Willy Loman of the piece. By homing in on Anthony instead, Neveu adds a fascinating twist: we're asked to look at the situation from the point of view of a vicarious nostalgist—a guy who will lose not only his inheritance when the station goes but also a past he treasures even though it's not really his own: in his head, Anthony is Art on that Super Bowl Sunday in 1985. The haplessness of it creates an aura of deep, quiet, awful pain.

Neveu's known for his subtractive approach to writing plays. One imagines him starting with something most of us would regard as a normal script and then cutting away chunks—the poetic speeches, the showcase ideas, the literary touches—until he's got it stripped down to a plain but harrowing leanness. The risk, naturally, is that he'll cut too deep, and that happens sometimes in Gas for Less. I would have liked to know more, for instance, about the missing Pelenkovic: Art's son and Anthony's father—the subject of some head shaking and angry looks but zero hard information. Still, Neveu's stinginess leads to passages that would be ruined by a single word. I'd happily forgo any and all additional detail if adding it meant losing potent silences like those carried off by Robert Breuler as Art and Rian Jairell as Anthony. Each of them invests his straightforward-seeming character's straightforward-seeming stare with an outlandish amount of resonance. More important, I'd never want to lose the mute final moments of this show—a brief suite of simple declarative gestures, as devastating as they can be.v

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